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Metaphors We Create By

Sometimes metaphorical associations are obvious and natural, and can suggest interesting ways of approaching a task. In other instances the connections are more distant, or even bizarre, which demonstrate the limits of metaphor use overall. Metaphors can be flimsy things, but can also be a powerful bond between initial idea and final product.

Whether they are rhetorical and/or conceptual, people typically never notice the underlying metaphors. In political rhetoric, frames become invisible as they sometimes do in abstract art. One doesn't always see the frame or realize there is some framing device that is being used.

In this short film, Synesthesia, the various ways sound can be represented in the other senses is explored. Ultimately it is difficult how to suss exactly how the connections are made. The film demonstrates how objects can be onomatopoeic, e.g. the sound of a ping-pong ball, a saw-tooth waveform bass sound as cats. But the metaphors are fairly gauzy, and the film is more fun than informative about synesthesia.

Regardless of whether they are conspicuous or hidden or even cunningly suggestive, metaphor use impacts perception in sneaky ways--perhaps more so in rhetoric, but artists know their power to re-contextualize meaning and understanding.

Here are a few examples of metaphor as used in sculpture, painting and music. The list can go on ad infinitum--perhaps a subject for further essays:

Gestural/Linguistic Metaphors

The sculptor Richard Serra often starts with a list of transitive verbs which provide a starting point for making the work. The metaphors used in this instance are the invisible forms that get discarded after the material "hardens".

In this video, Serra throws thousands of pounds of molten hot lead into corners of a SFMOMA gallery, illustrating how gestural metaphor can extrapolate into big heavy industrial objects.

Object Metaphors

The "prison" series of works by artist Peter Halley use prisons metaphorically as a kind of "cell" or elemental unit from which the work arises, in which the idealized square becomes the prison. It is a clever use of metaphor that becomes integral to the work rather than simply being used as a provisional device.

Halley explained his process as follows:

1. These are paintings of prison cells and walls.
2. Here, the idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement.
3. The cell is a reminder of the apartment house, the hospital bed, the school desk--the isolated endpoints of industrial structure.
4. The paintings are a critique of idealist modernism. In the color field is placed a jail. The misty space of Rothko is walled up.
5. Underground conduits connect the units. "Vital fluids" flow in and out.
6. The "stucco" texture is reminiscent of motel ceilings.
7. The Day-Glo paint is a signifier of "low budget mysticism". It is the afterglow of radiation.

(Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, p. 165)

Halley's subject matter is dark, but the use of bright day-glo colors make them slightly sinister, in that they are somehow insidiously emitting "radiation".

Photography would be the obvious alternative to more accurately represent the grave nature of a prison, e.g. crime-scene photography (of which Andy Warhol cunningly appropriated), as opposed to the ironic treatment by Halley. You get the sense of gravitas in the Warhol treatment, but not with the Halley. But even photography or video, often thought of as being forensic, can misrepresent by virtue of the fact that photos naturally crop out reality and context beyond the frame; and conceal reality behind artifacts and distortion, both in the medium itself, as well as various imperfections in the eye and brain. Ultimately every medium has its prison walls, from which certain kinds of art cannot escape.

Today we frequently use the cliche "out of the box" to re-frame something as being innovative. Halley used the box as the frame from which the content could not escape and was locked within the work. The work has such inherent gravity, that like a black hole, no light ('pure' retinal experience) escapes. "The misty space of Rothko is walled up", as Halley states. There's only so much that can be done within a medium before it collapses on itself.

Much of the residue in the Halley was the metaphor itself, although the bright colors and large size are sufficient to make a compelling visual experience, regardless of whether the day-glo signifies "radiation"; further demonstrating that metaphors are usually "dark matter" that is undetected.

Sculpture as Architecture

This is an example of how metaphor can go wrong. The impending collapse of the banking system in Spain gives an entirely different meaning to its modern architecture, with a building that looks like it's falling down or imploding.


The Gate of Europe--The Leaning Tower of Banking (An accidental metaphor)


The Swords of Qādisīyah, Baghdad

As architects push the boundaries of buildings as sculpture, the less they are buildings, typologically speaking. Some of them are visually arresting and interesting engineering experiments, but they have not been 'locked down' in terms of applying some standard set of constraints that apply specifically to architecture. Perhaps referring to them alternatively as "structures" (a la Sol Lewitt) may solve the metaphor problem, as simply switching the framing device makes all the difference.

Architecture can be sculpture in the same way Lewitt applies the structure metaphor (euphemism) to sculpture. But the average lay person probably will not care--and once any object (art or otherwise) remain in a place long enough it blends in with city like wallpaper. Architecture is more labile and can easily blend in over time as newer structures give it a renewed context. Architecture that is completely unique can eventually earn the "sculpture" label--but can also run the risk of becoming kitsch as future events re-contextualize it, as in the Bankia towers.

Le Corbusier was adept at negotiating the architecture/sculpture axis:


Ronchamp Chapel


Lines In Four Directions, Sol Lewitt (Federal Plaza Chicago) A "structure".

Most people don't realize this is a piece of art. it looks either like plain aluminum siding, or a vent of some kind. Some may refer to it as sculpture or a "wall hanging" or a plaque, but Lewitt's description of it as a structure avoids the usual metaphorical framing as a sculpture. As a structure it is essentially more like architectural decoration than sculpture. Whatever you call it, it tends to behave according to its labeling or how people ultimately perceive it.

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park got the nickname "The Bean" well before the official unveiling in 2004. Even without specific metaphors used by the artist, the public will reflexively add them.


Music Notation/Fractals

The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti was interested in fractals and used them as a kind of visual metaphor of what the music sounds like, resulting in Byzantine notational schemes.

"In 1984, Ligeti saw several fractal graphics from the The Beauty of Fractals created by Heinz-Otto Peitgen. As a composer who had as a young man intended to be a scientist, it is not surprising that fractal geometry theory would intrigue him. In particular, the fractal images convey huge complexity with well-organized self-similarity in the small divisions, which gave Ligeti a new compositional approach. He was also interested in chaos theory, which states that a small distortion during a regular cycle produces unpredictable complexity. Though Ligeti denied that his music was directly influenced by science or math, he is one of the first composers to have attempted a musical representation of fractal and chaos theories in his Piano Études and Piano Concerto. He attempts to create music that is self-similar and recursive without being repetitive, resulting in a complex fabric of recurring motives that are subtly different each time." Baik, Ji Won, Gyorgy Ligeti's Piano Études: A Polyrhythmic Study (p.25)

"[Ligeti's music] is filled with infinite mathematical complexities translated into music. There are things that begin simply and then with one small branching or one instability, suddenly becomes incredibly complex and wild." (Pianist Jeremy Denk on Ligeti's piano etudes) Jeremy Denk: Playing Ligeti With A Dash Of Humor

Photography/Culinary Arts

The photographic term 'exposure' can be applied to culinary art in the sense that food is 'exposed' to heat to prepare it; as film (or CCD) is exposed to light to create an image. "Burning' certain ranges of colors or tones in the image uses the metaphor directly, but remains invisible to the viewer, unless titled accordingly.

This particular example is more a synesthetic phenomenon, perhaps even psychedelic. But there are in fact chefs that push the envelope as to what we perceive as a dining experience. Once the brain accepts the possibilities, and can overcome cultural aversions (like eating insects), it is more broadly embraced.

At Moto in Chicago patrons can experience food on the exosphere of culinary possibility, by use of basic elements like supercooled nitrogen and CO2 pellets (pop rocks) to create strange gastronomical experiences. Even the decor is metaphorized with the Periodic Table as a wall design. However strange it may seem--it works.


"Seared in Memory" (A "burned" or "blackened" photograph)

Further exploring the edges of photography and culinary arts, there are some additional cross-metaphors that are fun and interesting:

Focus/Spice: "Focusing" on spice or other olfactory essences; focusing on certain parts of a meal by presentation, or by focusing with certain beverages.

Small appetizers or hors d'oeuvre can be viewed as the "snapshots" of a meal.

To be continued. Next: Metaphors as a concealing device.

(Spreadsheet listing possible cross-domain metaphorical associations.)

Lee Barry
June 16, 2012